LFF2022 Review: The Wonder

Year: 2022

Runtime: 107 minutes

Director: Sebastian Lelio

Writer: Emma Donoghue, Alice Birch and Sebastian Lelio (Based on The Wonder by Emma Donoghue)

Starring: Florence Pugh, Niamh Algar, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones

By Calum Cooper

Sebastian Lelio has created a singularly unsettling dissection on faith and grief with “The Wonder” (2022). A period drama, this is a deeply engaging movie that dissects its subject matter with conscious consideration and visual care. This is yet another impactful addition to Lelio’s impressive filmography.

Beginning with an odd but intriguing fourth wall break, we are soon introduced to Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Wright (Florence Pugh). She is an 1890s nurse who has travelled from England to Ireland to investigate a supposed miracle. A child named Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy) has apparently lived for several months without eating a single piece of food. The surrounding community, including Anna’s family, believe it to be an act of divine intervention. But, just to be sure, Lib and a nun are hired by a committee to watch Anna closely. The more time Lib spends with Anna the more concerned she becomes.

At the core of “The Wonder” is a fascinating look at the complex relationship between faith and medicine. The late 1800s were a time of great change and uncertainty. Particularly in Ireland, where the aftermath of the potato famine was still relatively fresh in people’s minds, faith was turned to more than ever. Yet even the concept of faith was in something of a dire place with the recent discoveries of Charles Darwin. Clashes between faith and science are often fought on a contemporary battlefield. But to have the film ground this tense dynamic within a period setting of anxious times is a brilliant choice by the screenwriters, one of whom, Emma Donoghue, penned the story the film is based on.

“Sebastian Lelio is a director who has always understood humanity’s complications. In adapting “The Wonder” for the screen, he and his team have delivered something gripping, thought-provoking and gorgeously realised.”

Lelio and his team take full advantage of the cinematic medium to frame this clash within the film’s visual landscape. Ari Wegner’s cinematography absorbs with wide shots and long takes, basking in the slow burn pacing that such tonal anxiety flourishes in. A cold colour scheme and an intrusive score by Matthew Herbert fuse with the cinematography to generate a highly atmospheric piece that chills you to the bone. As the characters discuss the technicalities around Anna’s supposed wonder, one cannot help but feel uneasy by the circumstances. We know there is an explanation to what is happening, but not everyone is going to be satisfied with, or even accept, the answers when they reveal themselves.

Science and faith have both led to inward searches as well as external curiosity. The characters that occupy “The Wonder” experience similar sensations. Lib is a woman of science – a nurse dedicated to helping others after being affected by her own personal tragedies. This gives her a degree of scepticism to the supposedly miraculous nature of Anna’s circumstance. Yet it also gives her a level of empathy and concern that the men who hire her lack. She is invested in Anna from her own experiences, but also driven by the desire for truth. Her very ethics are put to the test, as Lib is scrutinised by the self-serving committee who appointed her, and her advice is dismissed by Anna’s religiously zealous family. Even though her role is merely to observe the uncanniness of this wonder, she already knows how this will end. Still the possibility of interference could do more harm than good.

The Wonder. (L to R) Florence Pugh as Lib Wright, Kíla Lord Cassidy as Anna O’Donnell in The Wonder. Cr. Aidan Monaghan/Netflix © 2022

It is a heavy film with tough questions, yet Florence Pugh is up for the challenge as always. Her performance can only be described as sublime. A balancing act between disengaged objectivity and immersed concern is something few actors can pull off completely. Pugh is a kinetic lead who serves brilliantly as the audience surrogate in this harrowing story of grey morality. Pugh has always fitted in well with period dramas, be it “The Outlaw King” (2018) or Greta Gerwig’s, frankly, flawless adaptation of “Little Women” (2019). “The Wonder” is another great example of this. Credit must also be given to Kila Lord Cassidy. She’s a relatively new name in the acting business, but she holds her own marvellously opposite Pugh. Anna’s piousness makes for a great foil to Lib’s reason. Cassidy imbues the role with a tranquil patience that makes for a nervous contrast to the worry all around her. It’ll be thrilling to see what she does next.

As the film comes to its conclusions and measures the dynamic between its opposing forces, its themes shine brightly, even among the coldness of the colour scheme. This is not just a tale of faith versus logic, but a nail-bitingly suspenseful look at the consequences of zealousness. The film never dismisses faith as naive, and nor does it rank logic or reason as the supreme stance. Rather it cautions against blind devotion, especially when reeling from grief or confusion. Human nature is not always a binary thing that can be measured by faith or determined by science. It is a messy storm that shifts directions over the course of new developments. “The Wonder” recognises this, and as such, becomes as heartfelt and provocative as it is richly atmospheric.

Sebastian Lelio is a director who has always understood humanity’s complications. In adapting “The Wonder” for the screen, he and his team have delivered something gripping, thought-provoking and gorgeously realised. It is a hauntingly articulate and endlessly fascinating spectacle brimming with great performances and a razor sharp script. With many hard-hitting questions, and few easy answers, this is one wonder that audiences will still be contemplating long after the credits roll.

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